Up until the Renaissance, a individual’s life was entirely devoted to the church. In comparison, during the Renaissance, people broke free and began to focus on themselves and the good of humanity. It was a time of self-discovery, education, travel, music and art and with this came a substantial desire for education and expression. During these times, women were also affected in their own way, by the changes in education, ideal beauty marriage and gender roles.
In the beginning, only wealthy women were known to be educated. If you were not wealthy, you had to enter a convent or become a courtesan to learn. If you were a wife or a mother, your education was for the purpose of being a better mother and wife, and only for that reason was it okay for you to be educated. Throughout the renaissance, the priority always remained their domestic role but education became more accepted and, in some cases, encouraged. One example of this was Henry VIII’s oldest daughter who was educated in Greek, Latin, logic, Philosophy, theology, astronomy and math. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some men labeled educated women as “unmarriable” and compared them to female warriors and amazon women. Despite this, women continued to gain knowledge. They were learning how to speak different languages, make art and dance and they also learned how to play instruments. In regards to who taught them all of these subjects; often times it was their husband, father, brother or private male tutor who taught them, as it was still unacceptable for women to teach.
Although there was much change in education for women, marriage remained archaic. Women spent the early part of their lives under their families’, or should I say fathers’, rules and were then passed on to a husband around the age of sixteen. Renaissance girls had no say in who they were to marry and they were passed off at such a young age to ensure that there would be enough time to have as many heirs as they could. When they were married, the husband received a dowry, or payment, for marrying the wife. In this time, marriage was not about love, it was about a gain in wealth and social or political standing. Marriage also meant that the body of the wife was then property of her husband. Once married, if the husband found the wife to be “rebellious” or “disobedient,” abuse of the wife was completely permitted. In the case that her husband died, her age determined where she would be “placed.” If she was young, she would be sent back to her family’s home and if she was older, she was advised to stay with the family of her husband. Regardless of the age, though, a woman never lived alone.
Throughout each time period, the standards of beauty, in regards to women, continued to change and it was no different in the renaissance. During this time, a painter named Botticelli created a piece called Venus and Mars. In this painting, there is a woman (Venus) lying elegantly across from her lover, Mars. Many people thought that Venus was modeled after a woman Botticelli had met, but in reality he painted Venus based on what he envisioned as a beautiful woman. Botticelli’s preference reflected what was ideally beautiful in the renaissance; curves, yellow hair, supple breasts, high forehead, ruby lips and alabaster skin. Dark red lips were achieved with vermilion, hairlines were plucked, hair was lightened with Saffron and onion dyes, mixed with alum and soda and alabaster skin could be made with a mixture of white lead and vinegar. This time period held more realistic expectations, but women would go to more dangerous lengths if her body was not a complete match to the current idea of beauty.
Feminism. There were a handful of women who were already radically pushing the boundaries of womanhood and what was considered “normal” for women in that time period. Lucrezia Marinella wrote a piece of work called “The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men.” This piece was written in response to a piece that Giusepe Passi created, stating the alleged defects of women. Marinella’s piece consisted of the reasoning behind her thought that women were actually superior to men in many ways, including morally and intellectually.
Isabella d’Este was the wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, the Marquess of Mantua. In Francesco’s absence, and later death, Isabella took his place. Isabella was not only an important political figure but she was a patron of the arts, played the lute and was a very large part in the development of a musical style called frottola. Another example of this is a woman names Laura Cereta. Laura put feminist issues and her friendships with other women in the forefront of her writings. She wrote from a feminist perspective, about women’s education, war and marriage and her pieces were not only intended for women, but for everyone, as to further spread her ideals.
The renaissance was a time for change and exploration and that was absolutely reflected through many women and their perceived roles. Presently, it seems like it was a dreadful time to be a woman, and it’s true. However, it was a nudge in the right direction. It was a time for women to experience education, make music and to create art. It was a time for them to write stories and poems, to speak, rule and start the shift towards being a separate entity to their partners. In some cases, it was even about smashing gender roles completely and fighting for women’s rights.